Over the weekend we were all blessed by Yeezus, the sixth album from hip-hop superstar Kanye West. Though not set to release until June 18, it leaked last Friday, sending hip-hop heads everywhere scrambling to find a high quality download link and critics racing to post the first review.
Doing a more lyrically focused analysis of the album, I decided to take a few days to allow for a little more absorption of the words and concepts. As Hot97 morning show host, Peter Rosenberg said following an early viewing of the album last week, "if you want Late Registration Kanye West, this may not be the album for you; if you want 808's & Heartbreak, not the album for you; if you want My Beautiful, Sick, Dark Twisted Fantasy, not the album for you;" if you however, "you want anti-establishment, angry, black punk rock, fighting the system, then this is the album for you."
Over abrasive electronic and industrial rock style instrumentals, sprinkled with samples from Nina Simone's version of the Billy Holiday song Strange Fruit to fellow G.O.O.D. Music artist Pusha T's song Blocka, and production from Daft Punk and Rick Rubin among others, the lyrical style of this album reminds me more of punk and alternative rock music than hip-hop. Thus, lyrically Yeezus cannot be viewed through the same lens as one might view earlier Kanye albums, nor in the same light as more typical/ classic hip-hop, or for that matter even other alternative hip-hop genres like trap music.
The bars are short and intentionally jarring, yet complex, producing bizarre, explicit, or even incomprehensible images for the listener. One is reminded of the group Nine Inch Nails whom he actually references on the track "I'm In It" repeating the words "star fucker" the name of one of their singles from 1999. Thus, one should not expect in depth word play or an easy to follow uplifting story. Nonetheless, as I began to point out, the lyrics ultimately play a different role with in the album — less was definitely more, achieving shock factor, but also harboring a deeper meaning. Each line delivers everything we should have learned to expect from Kanye by now: religious symbolism and black power sentiment, with a I do "not give a fuck" attitude, creating an in your face, controversial work of self-reflection and cultural analysis.
Some critics have interpreted this lyrically minimalistic style as Kanye being "hazier and lazier than ever". Another critic wrote that lyrically, "West isn't always at his best. The album lack deep storytelling ... which he powerfully delivered on past albums. He sounds random and frustrated at times, and at others, he'll frustrate you."
Yet, such a reactions demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of what the album is all about and an overly simple interpretation of its symbols and references. It's not supposed to be what you want! Kanye is purposely inverting popular, religious, and black imagery to piss you off; the notion that he would "put [his] fist in [a woman] like a civil rights sign" is supposed to disturb you; and that he reflected on drug use and botched relationships over a sample of Strange Fruit, which is about lynchings in the south, should be "a little hard to handle."
To further demonstrate what I mean lets take a look at some of my favorite lines and some of the most controversial ones too. Kanye opens the album with On Sight, almost taunting the listener with a bridge proclaiming "how much do I not give a fuck? Let me show you right now before you give it up." Though it does not pack the symbolism or double meaning of other repetitive lines to come, it's short and to the point nature sets the tone for the album and lets you know what it all about — non-compliance. This song also features an interesting and abrupt interlude between the the bridge and the second verse sampling a choir singing the words: "He'll give us what we need, it may not be what we want." Invoking images of Gotham's Batman, converse to his seemingly out of control lyrics and erratic behavior, Kanye is actually hyper aware of his role in the music industry and black community and knows exactly what he's doing.
The next song titled, Black Skinhead, is packed with racial references such as, "they see a black with a white woman at the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong" and followed up by an acknowledgement of who who his fan base has grown to include, "Middle America packed in, came to see me in my black skin."
As an interesting side note when Kanye first debuted the song on SNL the lines following these were "my homey was number one draft pick, they still burned his jersey in Akron" however, on the recorded album he says, "number one question they askin', fuck every question they askin'." Anyways, as suggested by the title, in this song he also introduces a more serious theme which he revisits throughout the album, analysis of the state of the black community in America: "stop of that coon shit, early morning cartoon shit ... Stop all that coon shit, these niggas ain't doin' shit, these niggas ain't doing shit, come on homie what happened, you niggas ain't breathing you gasping, these niggas ain't ready for action."
Similarly later in the album, the track "I'm In It" ends immediately following the lines "they be balling in the D-league, I be speaking Swag-hili" (in Swahili, Kanye means "the only one"); and in the song "New Slaves" Kanye, drops the line, "See they'll confuse us with some bullshit, like the New World Order, mean while the DEA teamed up with the CCA." In other words, Kanye is pointing out that distracted by television and other media, as well as, trying to live the NBA dream, the real issues are being overlooked, such as the fact that the incarceration rate for African-American is now six-times the national average.
There is so much to be said about the lyrical content of this Yeezus, I could literally write an article for each song. Though I feel the album could have used better track ordering to keep the message a bit more consistent, as it gets somewhat lost in the more sexual and relationship focused material of the second half, overall it is exactly what hip hop needed: "a creation to make people talk" and a reminder of "hip-hop's ability to break the rules." Perhaps the bold claim repeated throughout the track "New Slaves" says all that needs to be said: "you see there's leaders and there followers, but I'd rather be a dick that a swallower."
Is Kanye a God, what do you think about Yeezus? Or, are you just confused about what Yeezy means when he says, "I keep it 300 like the Romans" and other lines? Leave your comments and questions below or find me on Twitter: @Welcome2TheAve.